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2014 Master of the Southwest Kenneth Ferguson - Portrait Artist

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: March, 2014, Page 108
Ken Ferguson works on a watercolor painting at his studio.

Kenneth Ferguson’s Passion for Museums, Combined With Artistic Talent, Result In an Award-Winning Career as a Painter of Storytelling Portraits

Peering into museum cases may not be at the top of many youngsters’ lists of fun things to do. But it stoked the fires of artist Kenneth Ferguson’s boyhood imagination.

“Probably my favorite weekend activity as a child was visiting the Field Museum in Chicago,” he recalls. “I found it to be a mysterious and wonderful place. It was my first exposure to historic artifacts from around the world, including those of the Native Americans of the North American continent.”

The Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest would turn his historical bent and a talent for art into a more than 30-year career that has resulted in awards and national recognition. His stylistic watercolor portraits of historic Native American and military personages incorporate trappings that he had once viewed in museum settings and later meticulously researched on his own. Among them are items of dress, jewelry and other ornamentation, and also objects of warfare, from Civil War rifles to American Indian spears and shields.

Maiden of the Mesas, Hopi, late 19th century, 14"H x 10"W, watercolor. The young woman portrayed wears her hair in the traditional “squash blossom” style, considered by the Hopi to be a symbol of fertility. She has on a vibrant red manta, and the background of the painting depicts a coiled plaque that is typical of the basketry done in the Hopi villages of Second Mesa.
“My art is not necessarily self-expression but more storytelling,” says Ferguson. In a painting of a 19th-century Hopi maiden titled Bonds of Tradition, for example, he tells the story “of a young girl reaching maturity.” Her hair, styled in whorls, is worn by unmarried girls and denotes eligibility for courtship, he relates. Like the crimson shawl the girl in the painting wears, Ferguson’s paintings are characterized by a deep vibrance. He explains, “My style of painting involves a slow process of layering controlled washes to build rich color saturation.”

Ferguson graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration. He worked for an illustration firm for a time but at age 22 realized that he wanted to paint full time. “I’ve been selling my work through juried art shows and exhibitions, interspersed with gallery representation, ever since.”

Ferguson’s figures have backgrounds that help tell their story. Some of his Native American portraits appear against drawings done on lined paper. He is emulating Plains Indians of the mid to late 1800s, who drew pictures in ledger books they obtained through trade or found on battlefields, Ferguson says. Scottsdale collector Jim Deshur and his wife were inspired to buy a Ferguson painting with a ledger-art background after seeing original Native American ledger art at Phoenix’s Heard Museum. “The richness of his watercolor is what makes him special,” Deshur says of the artist.

Ancient Echoes, Anasazi (Hisatsinom), 1150 A.D., 16"H x 8"W, watercolor. This painting portrays an ancient Puebloan of Chaco Canyon. The jet and turquoise frog necklace is based on one found at Pueblo Bonito.
Susan Morrow Potje, co-owner of Scottsdale’s Celebration of Fine Art, where Ferguson is exhibiting through March 23, says his ledger-paper backgrounds are “drawing quite a lot of attention.” His paintings reflect historical accuracy, she notes. “I know he spends a lot of time researching Native American tribes.”

Ferguson has twice been a Merit Award Winner at the International Wildlife & Western Show. His works are in private collections as well as public, including the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana and the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C.

He and his wife split their time between Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the Phoenix area. Of his career, Ferguson concludes: “I paint what I like and try to sell it, instead of painting what sells and trying to like it.”

Coming of Age, Hopi, 8"H x 16"W, watercolor. The young Hopi woman wears elaborate turquoise adornments. Her hair is done in the style traditionally worn by unmarried girls eligible for courtship.
Tattered Glory, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, 1876, 24"H x 22"W, watercolor. Custer is depicted as he appeared on his last campaign, which ended at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The battle-frayed 7th Cavalry guidon is symbolic of his final defeat.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Brave Bear, Southern Cheyenne, 1876, 24"H x 33"W, watercolor. Brave Bear was a prominent member of the Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldier Society. He joined the still free-roaming Northern Cheyenne in the late 1860s and later participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The warrior is portrayed as he depicted himself in his own ledger book drawings. • Follows the Morning Star, Pawnee, early 19th century, 30"H x 22"W, watercolor. Morning Star was the favored deity of the Pawnee warrior and is symbolically depicted on the war shield shown in this painting. The hairstyle and roached headdress were typical for warriors of this tribe. The striking grizzly bear claw necklace was worn only by the most brave. • Thundermaker, 4"H x 4"W, watercolor. This miniature painting portrays one of the artist’s favorite mammals. Says Ferguson, “Call them buffalo or call them bison, one thing is for sure, these magnificent creatures are a true icon of the American West.” • The Sash Wearer, 7"H x 9"W, watercolor. Inspired by traditional Plains Indian ledger art, Ferguson begins with a blank sheet of watercolor paper, which he paints to create the illusion of a ledger book page. Portrayed here is a Dog Soldier of the Southern Cheyenne; he wears the ornate raven bonnet of that military society, as well as the long sash worn only by the bravest of warriors.

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